The state’s high court Tuesday ordered a new trial for 69-year-old Joseph Jabir Pope, who was convicted of first-degree felony murder nearly four decades ago, saying prosecutors withheld important exculpatory evidence in his case.
The Supreme Judicial Court, however, bypassed the broader issue that Pope and his supporters had also wanted justices to address: giving a new trial — or a new sentencing hearing — to those like Pope on grounds that they were sentenced to life under an interpretation of the state’s first-degree felony-murder law, which was abolished in 2017 as unfair.
Still, Pope and his attorney, Jeffrey Harris, said in an interview that they were grateful for the care and thoughtfulness the justices devoted in granting him a new trial. Pope said he expects to mount a strong defense if Suffolk District Attorney Kevin R. Hayden decides to try him.
“I’m confident going forward that I can demonstrate my innocence if the Commonwealth chooses to take me back to trial again,’’ Pope said. “I know things that I did not know before that will aid me significantly.”
Pope’s case was featured in a Boston Globe Spotlight Team report this year that looked at individuals who remain incarcerated for life under now-abolished first-degree felony-murder rules. They are serving the state’s harshest penalty under a holding, or interpretation of common law in Massachusetts, that says if someone died during the commission of certain felonies, everyone involved in the venture was on the hook for first-degree murder.
The Globe analyzed hundreds of first-degree murder convictions going back to the early 1970s, identifying at least 23 people, including Pope, sentenced to life without parole despite not having inflicted physical violence on the victim. Many of those men likely would not have faced first-degree murder charges if they were arrested under the same circumstances today.
In some cases, the Globe reported, the person who committed the fatal act got a lighter sentence through a plea deal that allowed them to be paroled, while others, such as the getaway driver or a friend who loaned a mask or gun, are spending the rest of their lives in state prison.
When the high court in 2017 revisited the felony-murder rule, the justices decided that to secure a murder conviction, prosecutors from that date forward would have to prove that defendants like Pope who committed no physical violence in fact shared the intent to kill. But the landmark ruling was not made retroactive.
In a unanimous ruling, the SJC did not address pleas from Pope’s lawyer that all such cases should receive retroactive review by the courts. Still, the justices did acknowledge the lawyer’s arguments that prosecutors violated their ethical obligation to provide Pope’s defense with all information compiled by law enforcement that linked him to a 1984 murder in Dorchester.
“We conclude that the Commonwealth’s nondisclosure of this evidence — which goes to the credibility of the Commonwealth’s key and only percipient witness, with whom this case rises and falls — constituted a violation of its [ethical] obligation to disclose all exculpatory evidence . . . and do not reach the defendant’s argument regarding Brown and the felony-murder rule,’’ Justice David Lowy wrote.
That ethical failure by prosecutors alone justified granting Pope a new trial, Lowy wrote. The discovery violations by prosecutors, Lowy also wrote, meant the SJC did not need to decide whether it should apply its 2017 revision of the felony murder rule to the Pope case.
Pope was accused of participating in the May 23, 1984, armed robbery of Efrain DeJesus, who was shot to death by a man named Floyd Hamilton, who was later convicted of first-degree murder in a separate trial.
Pope has maintained that he only accompanied Hamilton to buy drugs, and that there was no intent to rob the dealer, much less kill him. The key testimony against Pope was provided by Efrain Dejesus’s brother, Bienvenido DeJesus, who is identified by the SJC by his nickname, Benny.
The SJC said Pope’s defense should have been provided a report by then-Suffolk assistant district attorney Robert Goodale who responded to the Dorchester scene the night of the murder and summarized the evidence collected by Boston police.
Among other issues in the report that wasn’t shared with Pope’s attorneys, Goodale noted that a Boston police homicide detective, Peter O’Malley, suspected that Benny was the drug dealer, not his dead brother. O’Malley also said that the victim’s girlfriend insisted he did not deal or use drugs, and that Benny had changed his testimony about where Pope was during the crime.
“The Goodale documents not only exacerbate the inconsistencies already apparent in Benny’s testimony, such as his changing statements about the defendant’s location at the time of the shooting, but also reveal new inconsistencies in his testimony entirely different in kind,” Lowy wrote. “The very existence of the Goodale documents . . . calls into question aspects of the Commonwealth’s investigation or preparation for trial.”
Pope was temporarily released from state prison last December while the court heard his case. The SJC ruling means he remains a free man, but still facing a first-degree murder charge. Had the court sided with prosecutors, Pope would have to resume serving his life without parole sentence.
In a statement, Hayden said his office is reviewing the key points of Tuesday’s ruling.
“We are reviewing the Joseph Pope decision in its entirety, and we are assessing the options before us in a case nearly four decades old,’' Hayden’s office said. “We respect Mr. Pope’s desire for a timely decision and we will act accordingly.”
Some prison-reform advocates say they hope for some relief for incarcerated men still serving life under the old felony-murder rules. They have urged that the court or lawmakers take action to make revisions to the rule retroactive.
Hayden and other district attorneys have called on the Legislature to introduce new laws that could require a retroactive look at potential injustices for those convicted under the old felony murder rules.
Vanessa Vélez, deputy chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, applauded the SJC’s ruling, saying that “when evidence is withheld from defense attorneys and their clients, the criminal legal system fails, lives are ruined, and families are torn apart.”
“While the court did not address the issue [Tuesday],” Vélez said in a statement, “we hope that the SJC will consider retroactively abolishing the felony-murder rule, but today’s decision is great news for Mr. Pope, his family, and those who believe that the state should be held to the highest burden before taking someone’s freedom away.”
Boston defense attorney David Nathanson said he is not surprised that the SJC bypassed the felony-murder rule issue, but added that there are other cases in the pipeline for the court to consider.
“I think people are mostly very happy for Mr. Pope, because it was clearly the right decision,’' Nathanson said. “On the felony murder front, there are [several] cases that are working their way up through the system where the court will have the opportunity to do the right thing on this.”